On a certain diocesan website (not the one from which the above photo is taken) reporting the conferral of the ministry of Reader upon some candidates for the permanent diaconate (congratulations to them), it was recently stated that "The conferral of this Ministry (of Reader) is one of the steps on the path to ordination."
Well, that's true of course, but this always brings to my mind an express wish of Pope Paul VI in his post-Conciliar reforms which has not been implemented in any region with which I am familiar.
The reforms are described in Pope Paul's Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam "on first tonsure, minor orders, and the subdiaconate." The Pope abolishes the subdiaconate, (please leave aside any opinions concerning the more ancient usage known as the Extraordinary Form for the time being) subsuming it into the ministries of readers and acolyte. He also abolishes tonsure, and says that thenceforth there will not be reference to ordination but to institution. So there are no more "minor orders" but rather "ministries".
He promulgated the following norms to become effective January 1, 1973 (with some comments from me in parentheses):
In the Novus Ordo Church which the vast majority of us inhabit, I think our sense of order in the liturgy would be vastly improved if suitable men were chosen to be stably instituted as lectors and, later, acolytes. What about the women? They could still be temporarily appointed to fulfill the function of a reader on occasion, or even of an acolyte. But I would consider this to be an extraordinary circumstance.
- First tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance into the clerical state is joined to the diaconate.
- What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries.
- Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders. [In other words, they are to be stable.]
- Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte. The functions heretofore assigned to the subdeacon are entrusted to the reader and the acolyte; consequently, the major order of subdiaconate no longer exists in the Latin Church [of course, we know it does, in those institutes dedicated to the preservation of the older liturgy whose members are still ordained to the subdiaconate, and even when the extroardinary form of the Mass is celebrated in a more solemn form, priests or deacons or even lay people take on the role of subdeacon]. There is, however, no reason why the acolyte cannot be called a subdeacon in some places, at the discretion of the conference of bishops. [Interesting!]
- The reader is appointed for a function proper to him, that of reading the word of God in the liturgical assembly. Accordingly, he is to proclaim the readings from sacred Scripture, except for the gospel in the Mass and other sacred celebrations; he is to recite the psalm between the readings when there is no psalmist; he is to present the intentions for the general intercessions in the absence of a deacon or cantor; he is to direct the singing and the participation by the faithful; he is to instruct the faithful for the worthy reception of the sacraments. He may also, insofar as may be necessary, take care of preparing other faithful who are appointed on a temporary basis [ah, so there can be temporary appointment to this ministry, but clearly there is to be a distinction between the stably instituted lector and the temporarily appointed person] to read the Scriptures in liturgical celebrations. That he may more fittingly and perfectly fulfill these functions, he is to meditate assiduously on sacred Scripture. Aware of the office he has undertaken, the reader is to make every effort and employ suitable means to acquire that increasingly warm and living love  and knowledge of Scripture that will make him a more perfect disciple of the Lord.
- The acolyte is appointed in order to aid the deacon and to minister to the priest. It is his duty therefore to attend to the service of the altar and to assist the deacon and the priest in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of Mass; he is also to distribute communion as a special minister when the ministers spoken of in the Codex Iuris Canonici can. 845 are not available or are prevented by ill health, age, or another pastoral ministry from performing this function, or when the number of communicants is so great that the celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. In the same extraordinary circumstances an acolyte may be entrusted with publicly exposing the blessed sacrament for adoration by the faithful and afterward replacing it, but not with blessing the people. He may also, to the extent needed, take care of instructing other faithful who on a temporary basis are appointed to assist the priest or deacon in liturgical celebrations by carrying the missal, cross, candles, etc., or by performing other such duties. He will perform these functions more worthily if he participates in the holy eucharist with increasingly fervent devotion, receives nourishment from it, and deepens his knowledge about it. As one set aside in a special way [pretty strong - one set aside in a special way!] for the service of the altar, the acolyte should learn all matters concerning public divine worship and strive to grasp their inner spiritual meaning: in that way he will be able each day to offer himself entirely to God, be an example to all by his gravity and reverence in church, and have a sincere love for the Mystical Body of Christ, the people of God, especially for the weak and the sick.
- In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men. [Aha! Let me repeat: "In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader and acolyte is reserved to men." Could this be the reason why hardly any episcopal conferences have, in fact, established these stable ministries among lay people and still only confer these ministries upon candidates for ordination, ignoring Pope Paul's intentions as stated in (3) above?]
- The following are requirements for admission to the ministries:
- the presentation of a petition that has been freely made out and signed by the aspirant to the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) who has the right to accept the petition;
- a suitable age and special qualities to be determined by the conference of bishops;
- a firm will to give faithful service to God and the Christian people.
- The ministries are conferred by the Ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes, the major superior) through the liturgical rite De institutione lectoris and De institutione acolythi as revised by the Apostolic See.
- An interval, determined by the Holy See or the conferences of bishops, shall be observed between the conferring of the ministries of reader and acolyte whenever more than one ministry is conferred on the same person. [Should one precede the other? Logically, and following the tradition, the ministry of acolyte would be considered a "higher" ministry and so one would receive the ministry of reader before that of acolyte, and this is, of course, the order followed for those who are candidates for ordination.]
- Unless they have already done so, candidates for ordination as deacons and priests are to receive the ministries of reader and acolyte and are to exercise them for a suitable time, in order to be better disposed for the future service of the word and of the altar. Dispensation from receiving these ministries on the part of such candidates is reserved to the Holy See.
- The conferring of ministries does not bring with it the right to support or remuneration from the Church.
- The rite of institution of readers and acolytes will soon be published by the competent department of the Roman Curia.
Now, anyone from my parish who reads this needn't get themselves up in arms - I am not about to exclude all the women who have been entrusted with these roles from doing them in the future. I do, however, think it is only right that we know clearly what the intentions of the post-Conciliar reform were. After all, Pope Benedict has asked that in the Year of Faith we study again the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I think everyone knows of my concern at the fact that the majority of our Readers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are women. If the need for more readers and EMHC's to replace any who step down arises, I'll be looking for men to step up first to at least redress the balance of male performance of these roles.
But what if conferences of bishops enacted Canon 230 of the Code of Canon Law? Of course there is no obligation upon them to do so, but Pope Paul was pretty clear about his intentions as also about his view about the ancient tradition of the Church.
Can. 230 §1. Lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte. Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.
§2. Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.
§3. When the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply certain of their duties, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside offer liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion, according to the prescripts of the law.